History of Risley Musical Theatre
(Formerly Risley Operatic Group)
In February 1942 Vi Finlay, a local teacher,
decided to set up a formal singing class at Risley
Avenue Youth Centre in Tottenham to help keep young people occupied
and off the blacked out streets of wartime North London. The idea behind
the class was to eventually stage a production.
The first show was "Maritana", an opera
by Vincent Wallace and the cast consisted entirely of girls as most of
the young men were away in the forces. The show was presented in Rowland
Hill School Hall and Vi called her company "The Risley Youth Centre Operatic
Group". An advert for the opera stated "Tickets will be 1/- and 1/3 each
and the proceeds, if any, will go to the British Red Cross Prisoner Of
"Maritana" was a great success and so, under the auspices of Tottenham
Education Committee, Risley Operatic Group was formed as an evening class.
Adverts went out for male actors for Risley's second production "A
Slave In Araby" and soon the society had applications from members
of old pre-war societies (which had ceased to function during the war),
young boys and men who were not in the forces because they were medically
For the first fifteen years of it's existence
Risley's shows were staged at Rowland Hill School, built in the 1930's
the school's facilities were ideal for the fledgling society, offering
a medium-sized stage, an auditorium seating approximately 200 people,
numerous classrooms which could be adapted as dressing rooms and a lawn
for outdoor rehearsals (weather permitting!)
As the men returned from the forces so the company became stronger and
the society consistently played to full houses. Finances were obviously
healthy in those early days as the society was able to finance their shows,
donate money to various good causes such as the "Missions To Seamen",
"Workers Music Association Ltd " and the "British Red Cross Prisoner Of
War Fund" and maintain a cot in the Prince Of Wales Hospital (until the
National Health Service came in and Risley's efforts were no longer required).
When the evening class system was restructured in 1957 Risley decided
to break away from the Education Committee and become an independent group
- which it still is to this day. This decision was a shock to the financial
resources as all hall hire expenses, payments for producers, costumes,
scenery, etc etc had to be paid for by the group. To help fund these extra
expenses it was decided to invite regular supporters to become patrons
at a cost of two guineas per year.
This decision to go "private" also necessitated a change of venue for
shows and rehearsals. The group bid farewell to Rowland Hill School in
spring 1957 with the Kalman operetta "The
Gipsy Princess". St. John's
Church Hall in Bourne Hill, Palmers Green now became the group's
base and almost fifty years later Risley still use St. John's twice a
week for rehearsals. From 1957 until 1970 Risley also used St. John's
as their venue for shows. Opening with Gilbert & Sullivan's "Patience"
in December 1957 and bowing out in spring 1970 with another G & S favourite
"The Pirates of Penzance".
The routine in the run-up to a show was very different from the way it
is organised today. Because of regular hall bookings Risley could not
have a full week of performances on their "show week". Instead, the dress
rehearsal was held on the Saturday preceding the opening night on the
Tuesday, after which costumes and props had to be taken home before the
actual opening performance!
In 1970 Risley had the opportunity to stage their shows in a proper theatre
when the Intimate Theatre in Palmers Green opened its doors to amateur
groups. Cramped dressing rooms and virtually no wing space on the side
of the stage were more than compensated for by the true theatrical atmosphere
of the venue when Risley staged Lehar's "The
Count of Luxembourg" as their first show in the new venue in October
The Intimate Theatre belonged to St. Monica's Church next door and first
opened in 1935 under the control of John Clements but due to rising costs
and many other problems had closed as a full time professional venue in
Risley, along with other music and drama societies, continued to use the
Intimate as their regular venue, staging two full scale musical productions
a year, until 1987 when the management committee of St. Monica's Church
decided that they needed to expand their church activities and wished
to use the building as a community centre.
Risley's last production at the Intimate
was Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate"
in October 1987.
Risley found a temporary home at Gladys Child Theatre in Southgate College
for their 1988 presentation of Offenbach's "La Belle Helene" and then
staged two very successful concerts at St. John's Hall whilst waiting
for the promised new civic theatre - Millfield - to be opened.
Millfield Theatre opened its doors
to the public in December 1988 and Risley first appeared there in a concert
"Melody All The Way" in March 1989, reappearing in May in Noel Coward's
"Bitter Sweet". Since then it has been the regular venue for Risley's
twice yearly productions.
One of the great strengths, perhaps the greatest strength, of Risley is
the friendliness and camaraderie of the company, the continuity of membership
and devotion to the society. The group has been likened to an extended
family and it is not unusual for different generations of the same family
to be connected with the society. The current president of Risley, Edna
Buckmaster, was a participant in the
very first show "Maritana"
and over the years has seen her husband, two daughters, son-in-law and
four grandchildren take part in the group's musical productions.
Finances are not as healthy these days as in the late 1940s and the need
to sell tickets to achieve "full houses" for the run of each show is vital
if the group is to remain solvent. Theatre costs, musicians fees, performing
rights, publicity, costumes and scenery hire all seem to cost more every
year yet there is obviously a limit on ticket prices if good audiences
are to be maintained.
In December 2000, Risley Operatic Group changed its name to Risley Musical
Theatre Company to reflect the company's change of focus for a new generation
of audience members.
Risley remains optimistic that it will
continue to entertain audiences with professional style performances and
is already looking forward to the centenary in 2042.